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TEDxSingapore held this event in 2019 to ask its participants if Singaporeans were truly happy. In 2020, the organisers and panelists reunited - this time on Zoom - to examine the state of Singapore's happiness during a pandemic.

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(Above) The 2020 word cloud on happiness. The 2019 word cloud on happiness. Participants listed the things that gave them "deep happiness". The more times a word is listed, the bigger it appears in the word cloud. "Family" featured prominently for both years. In 2019, words such as "Connecting", "Travel" and "Freedom" were commonly cited. In 2020, words such as "Meaning", "Purpose" and "Learning" were more popular.

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The 2020 word cloud on happiness. (Above) The 2019 word cloud on happiness. Participants listed the things that gave them “deep happiness”. The more times a word is listed, the bigger it appears in the word cloud. “Family” featured prominently for both years. In 2019, words such as “Connecting”, “Travel” and “Freedom” were commonly cited. In 2020, words such as “Meaning”, “Purpose” and “Learning” were more popular.

Singaporeans, are you happy?

A conference on happiness of Singaporeans during Covid-19 yielded surprising results.
18/09/2020 - 05:50

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IN 2019, TEDxSingapore held a conference to examine the happiness of Singaporeans. It conducted a straw poll among its roughly 140 participants to ask how happy they were. The participants scored an average of 7.6 out of 10 on the happiness scale - with several participants putting their happiness levels at 9 and even 10.

Last weekend, the same organisers and speakers of that conference reunited on Zoom to assess the happiness of Singaporeans amid the pandemic. Straw polling about 140 people again, the average happiness score came out as - surprise, surprise! - 7.3.

"7.3? In a pandemic? Really?" reacted nearly every participant. "With economic uncertainties, job losses, travel restrictions, daily mask wearing - 7.3? It can't be!"

But a close examination of the scores showed that perhaps it wasn't all that impossible. And a close examination of the word cloud exercise conducted at last year's and this year's events suggested the same.

The caveats, of course, are many. The sample size was small. The participants taking part in the conference were mostly white-collar and middle/upper-class, living in their own homes. Many had a "growth mindset" - that's why they were regular attendees at events such as TEDxSingapore. And the poll was also conducted nearly three months into Phase 2 when people can eat out and socialise, albeit in smaller groups.

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Shifts in priorities

Other caveats include the fact that several panelists and participants work in the field of counselling, social work, positive psychology and corporate training. During the breakout sessions, a few of them extolled the benefits of keeping a "gratitude diary" during the pandemic. (A gratitude diary requires you to write down three things you are grateful for everyday in a diary. It's been shown to have a significantly positive impact on your mental health.)

In short, the sample of people at the conference is not representative of the Singapore population.

However, if one accepted their limitations, the straw poll and word cloud actually yielded interesting finds. For instance, in 2019, several participants listed words such as "Travel", "Freedom", "Living", "Achieving", "Success" and "Greatness" as among the things that give them "deep happiness" in the conference's word cloud.

In 2020, most of these words have all but vanished from the word cloud. Instead, new words such as "Meaning", "Purpose", "Gratitude", "Contentment", "Peace", "Fulfillment", "Meditation" and "Helping" have emerged in the cloud.

Meanwhile, on the happiness score chart, most of the 2020 participants' responses were clustered around 7 and 8, and there were fewer extremely low and extremely high scores compared to the 2019 chart - suggesting a kind of consolidation.

There was an elegant bell curve on the 2020 happiness score chart, compared to the uneven-looking 2019 chart. It's as if this time round, the participants really thought more carefully about how they were going to score their happiness levels.

People are resilient

So why are Singaporeans still significantly happy despite the circumstances?

Putting aside all caveats for a moment, there were a few theories posited by the panel of experts, such the resilience and adaptability of human beings in the face of challenges, as well as the fact that Covid-19 has led many to reflect on their lives and be thankful of what they have.

Sure, people could no longer move around as freely they used to, but they're learning to adapt to their new circumstances and trying to keep their spirits up.

The panelists included Christopher Cheok, a senior psychiatrist at the Institute Of Mental Health; Angela Ng, a corporate consultant and human experience designer; Yeo Sha-en, founder of positive psychology firm Happiness Scientists; and Christina Southgate, head of HR APAC at LinkedIn. The moderator was Dave Lim, founder of TEDxSingapore.

On the one hand, the conference's panelists and participants who worked in healthcare have seen a rise in the number of patients suffering from anxiety and depression. On the other hand, many have also witnessed relatives, friends and acquaintances doubling down in showing care and concern for each other, resulting in improved ties and stronger relationships.

Ms Yeo of Happiness Scientists said: "Connecting with people and having time to reflect have always contributed to a deeper sense of satisfaction. Now that we're spending more time with the people we love in close quarters, they may be the reasons why we're happy despite the circumstances."

Ms Yeo is aware that, for some families, living in close quarters for extended periods has produced higher levels of domestic tension, abuse and violence. But, for most families, spending more time together has been largely beneficial.

Ms Southgate of LinkedIn said that there have unexpected upsides too in terms of work: "People who are natural morning larks or night owls now have the flexibility to work their own hours. There is less commute and fewer meetingsto get dragged into just because you're in the office. There is more time for the family and personal pursuits . . .Things like these have really shifted people's way of thinking about the future of work. And now organisations large and small are trying to figure out how to accommodate this new feature of work."

As Dr Cheok of IMH put it: "The Covid situation affects people in unequal ways. There are those who have not been impacted very much and are keeping their spirits up. And then there are other segments of our society and specific industries that are greatly impacted. We know from the news there is a mental health crisis out there . . . So I would say that the people that we have here at this Zoom conference is a rather special group."

What now?

The panelists expressed surprise that the largest words in the 2020 word cloud include "Purpose" and "Meaning" - two words that did not appear in the 2019 word cloud. What this suggests is that the conference participants now consider "Purpose" and "Meaning" as two of the most essential requirements for happiness in the pandemic.

Corporate trainer Ng said: "In our pre-Covid days, many of us filled our time with entertainment and distractions. But that kept us away from asking ourselves: What is our purpose in life? And what should we do to make ourselves truly happy?"

"Now that our days have kind of shrunk to simpler routines, we've start asking ourselves what is our purpose for getting up everyday. And those who have a sense of purpose and meaning are actually happier despite the challenges and circumstances."

The emergence of "Purpose" now as a factor for happiness, however, does not surprise Simon Leow and Sherman Ho, co-founders of social enterprise Happiness Initiative. To them, happiness is "the ability to transcend our self-centred consciousness in service of others". In order to do that, you have to identify your purpose.

Since August, the Happiness Initiative has been running a series of webinars to help Singaporeans gain resilience in weathering the crisis. The webinars cover topics such as purpose, passion and altruism.

Mr Leow, who holds a masters degree in positive psychology, said: "For a long time, the Singaporean mentality is that you work hard in order to earn a living - not because you're passionate about your job.

"And so, many middle-aged workers - who face a higher risk of retrenchment depending on their skills and salaries - will be devastated should they lose their jobs now. Not only will they lose the basic routine of going to work everyday, they also find their lives losing all 'meaning' and 'purpose' . . .

"Hence, it's really important for us to stop and question ourselves on our purpose. Only when we know what that is would we able to pursue the lives we find most fulfilling."

Mr Ho said: "It's important to have a sense of awareness of who we are so that we can reframe our mindset in the face of challenges. When a crisis like this happens, people with a 'growth mindset' have a better chance of thriving, because they consider themselves adaptable, malleable and capable of growing. On the other hand, people with a fixed mindset feel stuck. They think there is no room for them change or improve."

The ability to reframe your mindset, both said, is crucial factor to happiness.

At the conference, Dr Cheok of IMH made a similar point: "We tend to focus on things differently, depending on our mood state. So when we're in a depressed mood, we tend to focus on the negative. When we're in a happy mood, we tend to focus on the positive. So one of the things we need to do now is to really try to keep ourselves in that positive state so that we can focus on things that make us happy instead of things that make us sad."

Choose the reality to focus on

"Yes, there is reality, which is fixed - but reality is also what we choose to focus on. No one is asking you to deny the reality of the pandemic. But you can also choose which reality you want to see more of.

"And for that reason, I personally don't recommend that you keep reading the news, because the news tends to be largely negative these days. I would recommend that you visit nature websites and watch National Geographic instead. It'll help you remember what a beautiful world this is, and how this world remains beautiful despite the present circumstances. I think that can help you maintain your positivity and well-being."